Towards A Peaceful Afghanistan: Learning From Her Heritage & Wisdom’

MANY of us Afghans are extremely fearful of what the next day will bring. The bombs and shootings continue to cause us great anguish. Our entire region has been desecrated, there is so much suffering and sadness caused by the ongoing forty years of civil wars, political catastrophes beginning with the Soviet occupation and natural calamities such as the drought, famine which has forced over ten million of us to seek refuge outside.  Our religious leaders, tribal chiefs, Elders and our parents, those of whom are alive and whom we respect and love are not being consulted although we know their wisdom is priceless. We have deep love for our land, and we want to regain our glory. We want to become once again strong, independent and in control of our destinies. We want to go to bed waking up with the knowledge that not just the next day, but the weeks, months, decades if not the century will bring hope and joy in our hearts and our mothers can smile again! We want to live together in peace and harmony as we used to, to return to the certainty we value. In this context I spoke to Dr Kusum Gopal after an informative lecture she gave at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. She believes that peaceful governance and prosperity in this region can only happen if correct political solutions are applied through a deep understanding of our history, our culture, our hopes and dreams.  Dr. Kusum Gopal, an anthropologist who has served as a United Nations Expert and Technical Advisor to government agencies, is also revising her previously published manuscript on Afghanistan, now tentatively titled Charting Afghanistan, the heart of Asia; learning from her heritage and wisdom.  

Q: Why do you say that Afghanistan is the heart of Asia? And could you elaborate on our early culture, our heritage as you describe it?

A: That Afghanistan is the heart of Asia was observed since the earliest recorded history. Written accounts since Plutarch to the Emperor Babur and more recently, for example by Allama Muhammad Iqbal indicate how this region has been held with great sacredness and respect. For over two thousand years, the open-frontier traditions of Afghanistan have determined the pulse, the rhythm of the Indian Subcontinent– whatever is happening here affects the rest of the region, profoundly. The Khyber Pass has remained the main conduit for the movement of peoples, trade, armies and, new communities across this ancient terrain. Indeed, its civilizations have been powerfully influenced by the geography and historical affinity with the Indian Subcontinent to which it is tied to in perpetuity reflected in customs, belief systems, the common cuisine, attire, indeed, dance such as the attan, and music. Straddling the Hindu Kush makes for significant connections between inner and outer Asia, thus with the Iranian plateau and, unified cultures of Central Asia. These powerful confluences led to pluralistic engagements  informed by syncreticism unique to the Subcontinent. Balkh, for example was the birthplace of Zoroaster: Zoroastrianism flourished alongside Buddhism.  Indeed, Balkh was also the birthplace of Jalauddin Rumi. There are valuable written sources such as the Pata Khazana, containing Pashto poetry from over two thousand years. Some other  famous poets from the region are Khushal Khan Khattak, Rahman Baba, Ahmad Shah Durrani,Timur Shah Durrani, Shuja Shah Durrani, Al-Afghani, Ghulam Muhammad Tarzi, Ghulam Habib Nawabi, Massoud Nawabi and women poets such as Rabia Balkhi and Nazo Tokhi. These compilations are a testament to the powerful written traditions and pluralism of this region. Indeed, the tragic fates of Laila Majnun and Sohrab Rustom are an integral part of the folklore of India as much as Afghanistan. 

Archaeologists working in this region have noted that this region 5000 years ago had  integral connections with the Indus Valley civilisation.  As a matter of fact many ancient temples and mosques can be found in this region from the Hinglaj in Baluchistan formerly part of the Afghan territory — and extending into Sindh. This region remained connected with all Empires in India whether it was the Indo Greeks, the Indo Bactrian Empire or Mauryan rule –Emperor  Asoka  placed stupas here with inscriptions in Aramaic, the official language of the Achaemenid Empire) and build palaces, libraries, gardens in Kandahar; also, building roads from Kabul to Punjab connecting to the Gangetic plains. This region has been significant to the Silk  route. During the Mughals knowledge transmission and cultural syncreticism remained characteristic of the Subcontinent where inspite of later political dissensions  collapse of the Mughal Empire — boundaries did not exist.

Integral to open frontier traditions has been acceptance, for example is suli or bond brotherhood is to forge voluntarily kinship relations between different ethnic groups and individuals through formal adoption of one by the other mainly by the offer of sanctuary, intermarriage, offer of material goods, of land made explicit through sophisticated ceremonial rituals of mutual hospitality of Pukhtunwali.  For example, Alexander the great was offered a wife whom he married called Rukhsana as indeed later on the Arabs such as Osama Bin Laden who came here during the Cold war. Pukhtunwali is based on ancient principles of moral authority and etiquette founded on several interrelated institutions and concepts: traditions of hospitality, melmastia contained in Mehrman Palineh defining meraneh or codes of manhood such as imandaari (righteousness), sabat (steadfastness), ghairat (of property), namus protecting women and purdah. Purdah is incorrectly interpreted as seclusion of women- it refers to virtuous living and good domesticity. These belief systems extended far beyond Pakhtun cultural arena into the Subcontinent zan, zar zameen.  The connectedness with the rest of the Subcontinent is reflected in its belief sytems: nasib or fate is seen to depend on the divine who is paramount: everyone’s fate nasib is determined by Allah on the basis of his merit, circumstances, and capabilities. Each one stands in his own place and position, and hence all people should be grateful to Allah…The proper attitude of every Afghan should be gratitude, for it is Allah who has determined one’s position in life and gives blessings –ni`mat. Arrogance or kibr cannot be respected as such people are gharur. These forms of etiquette were accepting of other  tribes and peoples while strengthening their own. They also required a vast command of material and social resources and an egalitarian polity in which to flourish. Indeed, immanent traditions are key to understanding the heart of Asia theme. 

Q: Yes, we have Pakhuntwali in our hearts and minds and we expect those who come here to understand and respect that. There is so much misunderstanding of our culture in official policy making even if the intentions may be good. For example, ethnicity is not how we see it!   Explain this?

Yes, many Afghans have been at pains to point out that Ethnicity (as it is currently wrongly interpreted using colonial and Euro-American terms of reference,) needs to be qualified within the context of the history and syncretism of this region, for instance, the nomenclature Pathan and Afghan have been used synonymously; however there are over twenty different groups that had coexisted, interacted, intermarried and assimilated for over three thousand centuries. Nowadays, Pashtuns are referred to as Pathans; whilst they are in the majority, many other minority groups exist such as Tajiks, Turks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Baluchis, Aymak, Farsiwan, Brahui, Turkoman Arab, Nuristani, Kohistani, Pamiri, Pashae, Kyrgyz, Gujjar, Mongol, Arab, Qizilbash, Punjabi, Sindhi, Sikh, Jat etc each having contributed to a rich linguistic diversity, with Pashtu and Dari is spoken by the majority; all have adopted Pakhtunwali with ease. The interconnectedness among all people forged through interdependence and centuries of interaction needs to be emphasised and colonial interpretations of exclusion, boundaries and difference must be challenged for Afghans to once again forge a peaceful existence.

To understand how people relate to each other in time and  place requires humility accompanied by unhurried, long term engagement in the field with the people as also philosophical rigour and scholarship of their history going back a thousand years if necessary. And, it is indeed not just a tragedy but counterproductive when people’s cultures and belief systems are not treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve. This is because the received wisdom deeply embedded in the structures of governments and Powers- that- Be seeks immediacy, wants quick solutions,  favours fixed structures of thinking by imposing an overarching order,  a formal logic and coherence when such an order, indeed logic cannot reflect the realities, frustrating governance. For example, policy makers advocate the objective approach not recognising that they are also always being subjective —objectivity is rooted in culture, language, selective perception, and ideology which permeate human and scientific activities. 

Further, the professional act of detached observation effectively dehumanises the observed, reduces him or her or them to an inferior position. It is extremely essential to immerse oneself wholly in the society where one is residing or doing research and partake of daily activities along with the people and respect their customs. When the researcher refuses to go beyond the facade of outward behaviour and become a part of the inner workings of the community’s existence, he/she presumptuously assumes that his/her outside understanding of the observed is somehow more valid than the community’s own involvement with the world—there is no such thing as objectivity  everything is subjective. Good scholarship means privileging the world view of the local people and integrating their hopes and dreams into policy making- the particularity of  emotions need to occupy centre stage  which only a narrative approach can restore fidelity to experience. What we need is holistic intuition that is sensitive to context that ethnographic research can alone provide. The interconnected worlds we inhabit and chronicle demonstrate our common bonds, our common civilisations. Many aspects of human life such as beliefs and values are subjective and resist quantitative measurement such subjective phenomena may nevertheless determine certain critical patterns of behaviour and practice and need to be assessed- subjectivity of the research does not necessarily mean subjectivity of the method.

Q: Most of us Afghans are not aware of our past — particularly specific structures and forms of governance that existed before the British partitioned our land. In your lecture you spoke wesh and egalitarianism. Please explain:

A: Until the British intervention in this region, wesh embodied the spirit of land distribution. Traditionally, newly conquered tracts of land were allocated among the tribes and clans. Tribal land continued to be periodically re-apportioned according to the principles of an elaborate system known as wesh where land assigned to a tribe was called daftar and the individual shareholder a daftari. Under wesh, the tribe was obliged to redistribute its daftari lands on a cycle of between five and thirty years. This redistribution involved not merely the shares of individual daftari, but those of whole lineages and segments, thereby necessitating the movement of entire groups to new lands. One scholar suggests that such redistribution was a regular re-enactment and reminder of the heroic conquests and settlement which first brought the Pathans to the region. Thus, wesh ensured equitable distribution by preventing particular groups or individuals from benefiting from the best land by holding it in perpetuity. Thus, the principles of wesh mirrored the ideology of egalitarianism and honour, which was central to this society. In the same egalitarian spirit composition of the jirga was decided by the votes cast by all the daftari of the tribe while decisions affecting the tribe were taken by the jirga (council) of senior men, the respected and religious leaders. Jirgas were mostly convened to discuss issues on a case-by case basis, and did not have permanent powers. As in most egalitarian societies, the traditional figure of chief, khan or mansabdar emerged as an individual of authority and particular honour only in specific contexts and situations, rather than having any permanently ascribed status or power, and no daftari paid tribute or revenue to individual leaders. These were the forms of civil society that evolved naturally and the people were keen to protect. From the eighteenth century, the increase of centralised rule and taxation of mansabdars by the Mughals, and later Kabul kingdoms caused disruptions within this region on account of bankruptcy.  This led to an increase in the collection of tribute and revenue by a chosen few in return for grace and favour rights over areas of land while they were exempted from paying revenue themselves. Such intervention by the Mughal state began to put a strain on the ideals of re-distribution enshrined in wesh.  

Q: From what you say, it means that everyone had the chance to have the best land and democratic principles of the Jirga as it evolved naturally meant that there was no one was allowed to exploit their authority. Did this happen with the Durand Line? And, how has this impacted on governance?

Yes, the Durand line changed many things. In addition to drawing boundaries, the British made two further structural changes through the introduction of the Black Letter Law. Although these changes were imposed on the ceded tribal districts came to be known as the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). They became the settled districts over which, even today very little jurisdiction can be exercised. After the British annexation the entire tribal system was abolished within these settled districts through a set of Acts: the damaging effects of the colonial policies in these regions continue to cause great suffering to the people of this region, and indeed, in the entire Subcontinent.

The original Mughal system of placement of mere grace and favour rights was replaced by the allocation of full exclusive legal ownership of tracts of land to favoured khans. This decisively undermined the wesh system, the spirit of which was quite contrary to fixed tenure ownership. Thus, the most important innovation introduced by the British land policy in India was the concept of ownership itself. By custom, the traditional system had granted people different rights in the land and to its produce: no one could be dispossessed of rights to land as all were deemed to belong to the land.  This changed: at the top were the ‘big khans’ who were chosen as the natural leaders, and deemed the landed aristocracy by the colonial authorities as in India,  they were given extensive privileges typically owning thousands of acres,  with  the wealth, pomp  and status and exercised patronage over the villages.

This new landed elite were to secure political control and carry out judicial, administrative and fiscal services in the interests of Empire. If this local landed elite did not exist it had to be invented and between 1868 and 1880 the British administration set out detailed rules concerning land ownership, rents and tax, and this codification in effect created serious differentiation among an egalitarian people. Secondly, crucial for the political and social life was the transformation of the traditional jirga structure. Traditionally, a tribal jirga had to perform simultaneously the roles and duties of police, magistrate and judge. It sought to maintain or restore peace and order in times of trouble but was also an authority for settling disputes and dispensing justice reviewing cases including breaches of contract, disputes about tribal boundaries, distribution of water rights, claims to land and pasture, infringement of custom, enmity between cousins, and the frequent questions of inheritance among other issues. The jirga’s members were elected by the whole body of the tribe, mostly from among elders, men of experience and integrity, and the memories of the elders would serve as a record of decisions and precedent. Now the colonial officials reconstituted the jirga and gave them responsibility for adjudicating on criminal cases according to the newly introduced Black Letter laws. 

As we discussed, traditional jirga decisions were consensual and often ambiguous, with the focus on limiting conflicts rather than locating blame, passing sentences of a restitutive rather than a penal nature. The new role, however, obliged the jirgas to make clear-cut decisions on guilt and levy fines, now paid of course not to the victims but to the State. The government appointed its newly created landed elite to the jirgas and expected them to exert firm control over its decisions. Thus, the Act of 1904 gave the jirgas extended powers of arrest and imprisonment without right of appeal. Since the jirga members were no longer elected but appointed, and since there was no mechanism of appeal against its decisions, the egalitarian tradition was gradually undermined; therefore, the two major changes brought about by colonial rule had combined to produce considerable disaffection among the people. By the early twentieth century, therefore, two major changes brought about by colonial rule had combined to produce considerable disaffection among the people leading to violence. Many tribes were forced to seek refuge with their kith and kin across the border in neighbouring Afghanistan as scarcity of land and resources caused by the new land tenure system threatened landlessness and starvation.

Q: We in Afghanistan are not comfortable with the Durand Line- it has caused us so much suffering. Some of our dwellings remain constructed over it. So many Afghans cross it to meet relatives and Family. 

Yes, the social effects of territorial loss and confinement of human communities inhabiting a region which Afghans could no longer regard as an open frontier has left a sorrowful legacy of ‘ethnic’ conflicts and confrontations not just between the people of these regions but many parts of the colonised worlds that remain unresolved. Well, we need to understand what happened first.  Afghanistan became a pawn when the British wanted to rein in Tsarist Russia :In 1883, the British seized the Bolan Pass, south-east of Quetta, from the Khan of Kalat and some areas of Baluchistan which were part of the Afghan millat. And, this was the Great Game — two imperial Anglo-Russian boundary commissions without consulting the people fixed resolutely the frontiers in east forcing them to agree, thus the Durand Line of 1893 running from Chitral to Baluchistan: Quetta, Pishin, Harnai, Sibi and Thal Chotiali – all Pashtun territories were snatched by the British dividing this unified region; later, the north- east and the north- west became Russian Turkestan as Russian Central Asia came to be called. The Wakhan Corridor on the high Pamirs was to remain with the Afghans as it served to act as a buffer between British and Tsarist territories. Those tribes who suffered most on account of this Partition were the Kyrgyz and Wakhi tribes:  they no longer could practice transhumance in the Central Asian Steppes, graze their livestock; it damaged their lifestyle as nomadic pastoralists. In 1893, the distraught Amir Abdur Rahman himself is recorded to have said, 

“How can a small power like Afghanistan which is like a goat between two lions? Or a grain of wheat between two strong millstones of the grinding mill, stand in midway of the stones without being ground to dust?

The great Badshah Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan  and his  party, the Khudai Khitmatgars  won thirty out of the fifty seats in the elections of 1946 but, they were scuttled by the colonial regime. Had they succeeded in their non violent struggle against the British there would have been stability in the Indian subcontinent, indeed, a better world. What is clear from the vast corpus of assiduous archival documentation is that colonial scholarship inspired decisions and actions that have harrowing consequences. Possibly, the colonial administrators outran their own intent with outcomes far beyond those foreseen or intended, grounded as they were in spectacular ignorance. The Soviet occupation had been deeply traumatic and what followed has deepened wounds. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it – and solutions can happen by resuscitating pre-colonial traditions between Afghans stressing mutual dependence based on respect and dignity for every person. 

Q: The Taliban are a mystery to so many of us. Who are they? We do not know what Mullah Omar looks like. Also, the Taliban are not nurtured on Afghan soil, — they cannot understand us.

Yes they do not understand how sacred indigenous belief systems and culture are to Afghans  who accept that being Muslim is a way of life, not to be contested for men and women. What is often not recognised is the deep resentment against what Afghans perceive to be presumptuousness of Punjabi domination — doing kibr such overweening arrogance gharur is be ghairat (without honour) as  to them it violates what they take for granted: their codes of identity, community,  friendship, authority, love, even enmity.  Bangladesh happened because Bengalis felt marginalised, persecuted and severely exploited, to them, being Bengali is as important as being Muslim; on the same grounds the Baluchis are also seeking separation. Such developments illuminate how the politics of the Partitions in the Indian Subcontinent has traumatised all people be they Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi, Afghan, as indeed, Indian.

The Taliban, now appear to have become a franchise. Here it is difficult to determine who did what, although the Tehreek-i-Taliban make public acknowledgements, time and again. It is clear there has been no guarantee of safety for human life or position, it has been the rule of the gun. The Cold War has much to answer for –after Soviet occupation over ten million fled across the border to Pakistan and Iran.  This is how the mujhahideen  joined one of  these many political alliances be it Hizb- i-Islami, Ittehad-i-Islami   and so forth–they drove the Soviets out.  Also, disenchanted, many idealistic young boys and men found solace in the ascetism of the Deoband school selected possibly because of its roots in early Islamic strictures. The Deoband School had emerged  in India and was set up by  Muhammed Qasim Nanautawi (1833-77) and  Rashid Ahmed Gangohi (1825-1905 who as Deobandis sought to revive Islamic values based on Shari’a and Tariqah (spiritual practice).  Until the Taliban embraced it, it was little  known. The  leadership of the Taliban studied at the Dar-ul-Ulum Huqqaina in Akhora Khattak, and it was Samiul Haq who mentored  Mullah Omar.  It is inevitable that many Pakistanis  talibs were to  play a critical role as the Taliban are regarded as their brothers. To the Deobandis, there are no boundaries and separate countries for Muslims, although there is one for Islam. 

Many who joined the Taliban were young men who studied in particular Punjabi run madarassas funded by Zia ul Haq’s military ISI unit in government and has had the tacit support of the Pakistani government since. The madarassas were attended by several hundred orphans and some children who had one or both surviving parents. These were the children of the jihad (as Rashid Anmed has described them) who were learning to survive and cope under extremely punishing conditions: they had never known peace. They had no memories of their tribal genealogies and were unable to recount their tribal and clan affiliations or even remember their abandoned farms and valleys. They were also not aware of the shared heritage or the contributions of multi-ethnic groups and religions minorities in Afghanistan; they only understood their version of Islam. 

There is idealism in this school but unfortunately it is fractured. They take a constrained view of women –who are to them, not to be seen or heard. Islam under an all male brotherhood was a way of life they have been brought up in and have grown accustomed to. They are taught that women are an evil temptation and would distract them from their purpose in life. Women cannot work and no education is permitted. They had to remain indoors or be accompanied by a male relative at all times. All males had to grow beards. In addition to that the   exact length of the beard to be worn by adult males was stipulated and was a punishable offence; a list of Muslim names to be given to new born babies, abolition of celebrations of Nauroz and traditional sports banned. As indeed a ban on dancing, music or flying kites. All agencies that employed women had to leave the country. TV sets were smashed, sports and recreational activities banned, and the population was disarmed. They also oppose all forms of hierarchy among Muslims but also preach a rejection of other expressions of Islam including the cult of the saints. 

Naturally, Afghans feel uneasy with such draconian alienating strictures. The Taliban preach an understanding of Islam which derides tribal culture advocating that Afghans make a complete break with indigenous practices such as Pakhtunwali and they deem munafaqeen or hypocrites, other religious and philosophical systems. Unlike the traditional clergy who valued the cultural and historical ideals of early Islam  that were accommodating of  tribal structures, practices  such as the jirga and Pakhtunwali and, also of religious minorities, the Deobandis denigrate the tribal structures and pursue a purist, exclusive,  doctrinaire understanding that  many Afghans deem as anti-Islamic.  

In South Asia, Islam has for over a thousand years espoused the Hanafi figh. The majority of Afghans, including most of the Ulema, believe in Sufism in principle and rely upon and strongly espouse the Hanafi jurisprudence. Almost 80% of the Afghans belong to the Sunni Hanafi sect, the most liberal of the four sects with a minority sects scattered across the country. Such levels of intolerance have led to continued persecution and random killings of Shia Muslims and others. Thus, the Taliban have demonstrated their interpretations are violently opposed to fundamental Qu’ranic Injunctions which advocate inter-faith dialogues and kindness.

Q: What will happen after 2014 worries many of us? Any comments?

Most important is that representatives of all Afghans must get together and put forward their plan for a self-determination and peaceful governance. Well, in these difficult times maybe an inclusive movement could come into being and it would be best to have to advocate selective areas of centralised forms of governance such as the army, police, public transport with  strong regional bases. Trust needs to be built as factionalism or gundi is rife, and to Afghans it negates the intrinsic and natural unity of their communities. How can trust and co-operation be established?  There is a need for dialogue and scholarship- dissemination of knowledge of their heritage and wisdom. It is only through agreements with all political groups could warring factions cement better understandings. Also, all foreign governments present must take responsibility their actions – and do their best to purge the bitter legacy of human suffering that Afghans have experienced over the last forty years.

As we discussed Hamid Karzai and his government of jirgas have had to face many challenges post Taliban. And, there has been so much opposition to his government.  The important thing is that the Constitution of 1964 has been rehabilitated with revisions and the 2004 Constitution in keeping with the Qu’ranic principles according to Hanafi fiqh establishing once again the sanctity of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. There is now an Army to defend Afghans and a police force. However, with departure of NATO and the elections let us hope that wisdom and peace will come to prevail. It needs to be recognised that the Taliban are highly motivated well-armed with funds; they have been playing a waiting game. It is important to co-opt the Taliban into the government and to agree to a cease fire.This is where the international communities must continue to assist Afghanistan with military support  such as an UN peace keeping force. 

Q: What would you see as the most pressing problems now and what solutions must we apply?

Firstly, I think there is a great need for leaders from all regions to meet with all political parties –including Taliban to set their differences aside and call a ceasefire for safety of all inhabitants to ensure that citizens receive clean water on tap,food supplies, health and housing provision as mandatory. Very little of the terrain in Afghanistan is cultivable only 10-15% and it remains heavily mined. And the laying of mines in the most fertile agricultural areas and, in fruit growing estates as the orchards of Kandahar is extremely upsetting.  Although experts are trying to remove the mines, one notes that Kabul still has 200 square miles out of 500 square miles covered in mines. It needs to be urgently addressed – mines need to be removed in the major cities, and the countryside. There is an acute shortage of food and people do not have money to buy food. They are completely dependent on aid agencies or food supplies and housing. The Afghan population has been displaced not just once but more than five or six times. Homes have been ransacked and devastation has been immeasurable. 

It has been ten years since the first comprehensive United Nations Environment Programme Expert surveys in thirty-five random rural locations and thirty-eight urban locations following the bombing of Afghanistan.  UNEP surveys of drinking water in four cities Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar and Herat show extremely high levels of faecal contamination. This report completed in March 2003 documents air pollution in urban areas mostly from car and truck exhaust and the burning of toxic materials. Scores of children have died of cholera, tuberculosis and typhoid; indeed, many adults are wasting away with these diseases. There are no health facilities for the ordinary Afghan citizen and, this is exacerbated by an acute shortage of medicine and medical personnel. Reports compiled since then note that very little has changed since then. This needs to be addressed immediately, solar energy and building with traditional materials straw etc has been initiated but needs to be done in every region. This would create livelihoods; further cottage industries must be encouraged. We are aware of industries that cause pollution—and these must be avoided, Planting of trees and growing crops with the help of technological innovations would make it possible for a secure food supply.

Q:  Finally, you say a Nation State is not viable for Afghanistan. Why is that?

As you may know nation states are seen to be not just the ideal but the only form of governance. In Europe various regions once part of the Roman Empire and then subsequently other empires the Hapsburgs, Bourbons and so forth evolved a regional consciousness naturally deciding over three centuries the need to separate to exclude based on of their particular form of Christian worship, language, culture and thence polity: nation states are a consequence of specific cultural and historical events. And yet, they remain negotiable, for example, the boundaries of the former Westphalia State remain unresolved in some instances, as also the recent question of Scottish Independence. 

There are many forms of governance that can keep a region together and, wrongly, the nation state is seen as the only solution. In Afghanistan the synthesising of cultural processes by encounter and exchange happened naturally continuously enriching different spheres of life.  By such time honoured open frontier traditions and practices, Afghanistan has emerged primarily as a confederation of tribes and khanates, a legacy of some thousand centuries. It is also a form of government that the Afghans have preferred, as they are a fiercely independent, egalitarian people who have never favoured a central authority, particularly, if it is seen as being imposed from the outside. Also, as a corollary, the Sunni Hanafi creed encourages decentralised, non hierarchical orders to function with minimum government: state interference is nominal as important decisions are carried out by the tribe and the qawm. Thus as rule by centralism has always been a serious issue of contention in Afghanistan we need to re-think rather than impose solutions by force. Given the fierce egalitarian tradition which now also included, bitter tensions it would have been more advisable to revitalise traditions of governance Afghans are comfortable with alongside a few centralised institutions such as the Army.

As a matter of fact the foundation for an Afghan state as a nation state was forced upon them by the British when Anglo-Russian empires divided territories to consolidate their international boundaries at the expense of the peoples inhabiting those regions. The Amir who was appointed was forced to accept British control of foreign policy and this generated a lot of pressure on him to seal his kingdom and centralise administration, something Afghan people were not used to. Inspired by European precedents he established absolutist monarchy and declared himself the Imam of the Afghan millat, the vice-regent of Allah-mujtahid. The powers of the ulema, religious clergy over religious endowments such as waqf were curtailed; they became the paid servants of the state. Inspired by Ottoman janissaries, Abdul Rahman sought to breakdown tribal polity by substituting the idea of a grand community, an Afghaniyat qawm. He split major provinces into districts and sub-districts without taking into account tribal settlements. Thus, the twenty years of his reign witnessed almost continuous warfare to safeguard his kingdom from the moral threat posed by the British. To consolidate his empire, rebellions were crushed by ruthless mass executions and deportation of tribes, for example, the forced resettlement of Ghilzai Pashtuns among the Hazaras, the massacre of Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Tajiks; even the remote mountain people, Kalash of Kafiristan who were animist and some Buddhist were converted and renamed Nuristani.  

We must acknowledge David Edwards for his excellent scholarship on this region. He notes that Afghanistans predicaments have, less to do from divisions between groups or ambitions of particular individuals than from the imposition of the ideal of a nation state. The imposition of a centralised, political relationship in Afghanistan and its extension into the precincts of local principalities has caused local principalities and tribes to resist, as much as possible its intrusion and domination. There has been no moral discourse on statehood in Afghan society that was shared by the majority.  It has always been competing forms of moral authority such as the qawm that are challenging the state and its legitimacy and indeed, its role in providing meanings to ongoing events. Afghans acknowledge that they fight among themselves, that bitter enmity exists as it does everywhere, but in comparison to the hierarchical, centralised world, theirs is a world of sure ethical standards and fierce loyalties. In Afghanistan other notions of community have persisted on an equal level with the state, other moral orders have endured despite the consolidation of power by the state and these orders continue to challenge the state and its assertion of supremacy. Thus, by respecting indigenous cultural sensitivities, engaging with local support and by revitalising traditional institutions in the process of reconstruction and recovery it is possible that the Afghans can determine their own destiny and the international community will be able to contribute more positively to Afghanistan’s future. 

Be Part of Quality Journalism

Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.



Dr Kusum Gopal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.